The race for promotion to the top table of North West cricket starts on Saturday and as always at this time of year; hope springs eternal for all eight Championship sides.
Having been relegated from the Premiership at the end of 2014 there were plenty who fancied Fox Lodge to bounce straight back up again last summer but they were to come up agonisingly short in the final reckoning.
Brian Allen’s men succumbed to just one league defeat all summer but it still wasn’t enough as they were pipped at the post by Drummond on Net Run Rate.
Fast-forward 12 months and the Foxies’ skipper finds himself in an almost identical situation as the new campaign kicks off with his side carrying the vast majority of votes for promotion once more.
The North West Development Officer is far from convinced however and when asked who he saw as the main dangers this year, his very prompt reply was ‘everyone’.
He has a point too because there look to be some strong sides in contention this time. “There might be no Drummond to contend with but Newbuildings look very competitive as do Killyclooney who have made some good signings”, said the skipper.
“Glendermott are always very dangerous at this level and so too are St Johnston even though they’ve lost a few players. Ballyspallen have also recruited well and Trevor Britton is a great addition for Bonds Glen.
“On their day Burndennett are really dangerous too so whoever wins this league is going to have to work really hard and be consistent to do it.”
‘BA’ did accept that his side would be considered among the front runners but said that the amount of work the players have done in pre-season is proof that they are getting ready for some tough battles ahead.
“We are grateful to Graeme McCarter for putting us through our paces over the past couple of months as we prepare for a new season.
“We have Marco (Marais) back again this year and hope that he shows the same level of form as last time. If he does, and the rest of us play well around him, we would certainly give ourselves a chance of promotion which is obviously our goal.”
Elsewhere, Glendermott too will believe that they can give a good account of themselves especially with Simon Killen back at the top of the order after his spell at Ardmore. There will be a new overseas man at the Rectory this time - Pakistani batsman Azeem Ghumman replacing the outgoing Eden Links.
Alan Johnson seemed to revel in the captaincy last season and with a little bit more consistency it isn’t difficult to make a case for the Waterside men.
Newbuildings have been buoyed by the fact that work has recently begun on their own ground and while skipper, Dale Culbert, was realistic about their goals this summer, he was keen to point out that it wouldn’t stop them being competitive.
“We’re probably not ready to go up just yet but it won’t be long,” he began.
“We have a number of priorities on and off the field but we’ll keep working hard and the rewards will come. I still think we will do very well this season now that Peat Salmon has had a year’s experience here and we will be going all out to perform well in the cups too.”
Killyclooney are bringing in an overseas professional as well this year - West Indian, Andra Henry the new man in Darren Moan’s team while the arrival of Mark Snodgrass and Mattie Barr does them no harm either.
It would be no surprise to see ’Clooney in the mix as well, while Ballyspallen have also added to their squad having just been promoted from Qualifying 1.
Stephen Kennedy’s team were still waiting on final confirmation of their overseas player up until the weekend but they have also brought in former Eglinton pair, Stephen McCloskey and Richard Stewart, to strengthen their hand.
Whilst the league looks ultra - competitive you would have to say that whoever finishes above Fox Lodge will win it. Questions remain over the depth of their batting order and they are short a seamer but they have real match-winners throughout the side - none more so than Marco Marais.
Glendermott won’t be far away and you underestimate Newbuildings at your peril while Killyclooney could well be the side who give the Foxies most to do.
Despite losing several key players St Johnston will be nobody’s mugs while Bonds Glen and Burndennett wouldn’t be out of place in the top half either.
Last year’s Championship looked difficult to unravel and this is even more so.
However for what it’s worth we’re going Foxies to win it with ’Clooney, Glendermott and Newbuildings chasing them home.